Odisha Panchayat Elections Opposition Knocked Out
In what is stated to be the semifinal for 2014 assembly elections in Odisha, the recently concluded Panchayat elections have left sleepless nights for the front-ranking leaders of both opposition parties Congress and BJP. Though elections for the three-tier Panchyati raj system witnessed a violent display of money and muscle power so was the misuse of government machinery like never before as was alleged by the oppossion parties but nevertheless it has created a flutter in oppossion rank and file.
According to the results available, out of 854 Zilla Parishad seats, BJD has managed to win at least 641 seats, while the Congress has just got only 130 seats and BJP 40, independents and others got 41 seats. During 2007 elections BJD had secured 345 seats, Congress 303 seats and BJP 129 seats. But in this election, BJD has made fresh inroads in oppossion territories like Kalahandi, Sambalpur, Sundergarh, Dhenkanal and seven other districts. BJD which had majority in 15 districts during 2007 polls now is able to capture 27 Zilla Parishads. Both Congress and BJP lost miserably in these elections as BJP which had formed Zilla Parishads in Baragarh and Deogarh districts could not open its account this time. Similarly, Congress which had Presidents in 11 Zilla Parishads in 2007 has got majority in Jharsuguda, Koraput and Kandhamal districts. The elections for Sarapanchas, Samiti Members and Ward Members at Panchayat level were conducted strictly on a non-party basis.
It again proved the charismatic leadership of Naveen Patnaik who is still grappling with the allegation of scam after scam from oppossion from 3-lakh-crore mining scam to Dal scam. To make his image clean he has axed 22 of his ministers (colleagues) during his 13-year rule. It may be a face-saving exercise but largely, voters in the state maintain he is clean. No one in oppossion could match him as accepted state leaders. Even prominent oppossion leaders like PCC President Niranjan Patnaik, AICC Secretary Jayadev Jena, Union Minister Srikant Jena, and leader of Oppossion in state assembly Bhupinder Singh, BJP State President Jual Oram, Party’s national general secretary Dharmendra Pradhan could not manage to retain their party candidates in their respective constituencies. Even AICC general secretary Jagadish Tytler failed in his task, who had been camping in the state for a fortnight.
When the state was approaching for the Panchayat elections, mass rape of a Dalit girl surfaced involving ruling BJD workers to which the alleged role of local BJD MLA and state’s Agriculture Minister to cover up the incident came to light. So was the use of police and health official come up. Only after the intervention of state human rights commission and High Court and state-wide civil society movement on which all political parties barring BJD came to the streets Naveen acted upon ordering a judicial inquiry, and his minister resigned. Similarly, just before the first phase of elections in first week of February hooch deaths reported in Cuttack and Khurdha which claimed have 36 lives till date and hundred others are still undergoing treatment after consuming poisonous liquor and alcoholic medicines. It came as a nasty shock for the ruling party and acute embarrassment for the CM. But both Congress and BJP had failed to convince the people.
When asked a senior Congress leader said on condition of anonymity: “The reason may be the lack of strategy and projection of alternative leadership to Naveen’s stature and our failure to convince people on Central Government-sponsored schemes, which have already been swallowed by Naveen Patnaik converting those into state schemes.” He further said: “People must have perceived that the opposition has failed to rake up people’s issues both inside and outside the assembly.”
However, success of BJD lies not only in Naveen’s image, but before the ensuing Panchayayt elections the state government had also announced a series of programmes like Mamata Scheme for pregnant women, Cycles for High School going girls, Construction of rural roads etc. And above all Rs.2 per kg rice, uniforms for school and college going students, action against corrupt babus and erring government officials had really performed miracles for BJD.
The whirlwind tour of Chief Minister and president of ruling BJD and several other star campaigners from the ruling party across the state and helicopter-ridden campaign by both ruling and opposition parties had really made the Odisha rural polls more of a political and survival battle for parties than the process of strengthening the grassroots democracy. Even after a week, the elections to the three-tier Panchayati raj system post-poll violence is still continuing in many places like Hinjili in Ganjam, Jayapatna in Kalahandi, Rayagada, Pipili, Basudevpur, Nayagarh and Dhenkanal. A sitting NCP MLA has been targeted by BJD cadres, which has prompted the oppossion Congress and BJP to walk out the very first day of assembly started on 21st of this month. “This violence reminds me the violence occurred during 1997 elections which had come down during 2007 elections”, said Nirakar Beura, an expert in Panchayati raj affairs. Odisha had never seen such brazen display of political campaign both in terms of election expenditure and campaigning led by political heavyweights. So was the poll-related violence and controversies surrounding the PR elections.
Though an estimated 2.44 crore voters were enlisted to cast their votes to elect 87,528 ward members, 6,228 Sarapanchas, 6,231 Samiti Members and 854 Zilla Parishad Members through five phases of elections, on average 70 per cent votes were polled, according to private estimates. Barring few incidents in Maoist-affected areas, people in large numbers came out to choose their leaders as people’s representatives at the grassroots level.
Amidst all these, Central Intelligence agencies have expressed concern over some elected Panchayat representatives who have either been elected unopposed with Maoist support or wooing allegiance to them. A report compiled by them reveals that Maoists who have stake in at least 30 tribal blocks in Odisha may have been instrumental in selecting 29 Sarapanchas, 42 Samiti Members, one Zilla Parishad member in Narayanpatna and Bandhu Blocks in Koraput district, 15 Sarapanchas, 22 Samiti Members, 690 Ward Members in the worst-affected Malkangiri district, 4 sarapanchas, 21 Samiti Members and 832 Ward Members in Rayagada district all of whom have been elected unopposed. The report further says 32 elected sarapanchas has direct link with Maoists. It also apprehends that the Maoists have a role in boycotting the poll by Jhodia community demanding tribal status. It is learnt that the Centre has asked the state government to look into the matter of grave concern and to explore possibilities to either declare the election illegal or to divert the funds flow to these Panchyayts or else Maoists will have a stake at those funds which come around Rs 1 crorer for each Gram Panchayat a year.
State of Panchayati raj system in Odisha
It is noteworthy that first time women outnumbered men in electioneering, thanks to bestowing on them 50 per cent reservation. A number of well-articulated, educated and outspoken women were in the fray and a significant number of them have been elected to different positions. It has been seen as a step forward to empower women through their involvement in grassroots governance. Though the fifty per cent reservation itself was a huge challenge for political parties and their poll managers to identify women leaders—SHG movement or Mission Shakti campaign has made a significant contribution to it. Assiduously, it was an eye opener for many in rural areas both for political parties and people who have stakes at Panchayat elections.
But despite all these positive vibes and negative trends, the challenges for the newly elected representatives of three-tier Panchayati raj system are manifold. First, they have to set the house in order in accommodating diverse viewpoints. For this, they have to work in unison and for a common and mutually agreed resolution besides maintaining peace and reining in post-election violence. Secondly, they have to educate themselves on the nitty gritty and day-to-day functioning of Panchayat bodies. Thirdly, to concentrate on raising funds from both government and local sources. And finally, it would be the duty and responsibility of the newly elected members to rise above party lines and local interests to implement all the Union and state government-sponsored development programmes for the best use of their villages, Panchayats, Blocks and Zilla Parishads and for the benefit of their masses.
However, amidst all these holding Gram Sabhas and Palli Sabhas regularly, ensuring participation and involvement of villagers for their consent and approval of ongoing developmental works is a huge task. Though there is no limit to hold Gram Sabhas as many times, it is mandatory to hold Gram Sabhas for approving annual budget, for evaluation and to convene the meetings on October 2, January 26, August 15, and May 1 every year. It has been seen widely in many Panchayats that Gram Sabhas are being organised twice in year, once in March for approval of budget and the other in June for evaluation. The law has its own faults, where it says that at least 1/10th participation is required for quorum for holding the second meeting, no quorum is required. Gram Sabhas at Panchayat levels and for that matter Palli Sabha at village levels are the supreme bodies for grassroots governance like State Assembly and Parliament as the highest policy-making bodies. But these have been reduced to mere consenting bodies with less and little participation from the villagers. It has been alleged that Palli Sabhas have been used to sanction and issue work orders for contractors.
Similarly, there have been provisions for selecting/nominating standing committees in all the three structures of Panchayati systems on at least seven broad subjects. But in practice there seems to be none. It is not followed properly. Apart from these like state governments, Panchayat bodies can formulate their own projects in the area of agriculture, health, education etc and can mobilise funds from various departments of government to implement on their localities. Experiences show that Panchayat bodies and their elected representatives have almost forgotten their independent functioning; they largely depend on Block offices for day-to-day functioning. Not only that, Panchayat can also mobilise and maintain their own funds through direct and indirect taxes, managing natural resources etc.
Of late, though crorers of rupees have been pumped in through Panchayats as far as MGNREGS and other central and state government-sponsored schemes are concerned, there seems to be only supervising and monitoring roles for Panchayats concerned. Many projects are being implemented through Blocks and work orders are also provided there. “There need to be a complete transparency sytem in place,” feels Ranjan Rout, an activist. He further said: “Though there are provisions to set up vigilance committees and conduct social audit, nobody wants that, rather they simply ignore the proposal.”
Earlier, a Panchayat in Odisha used to get on average Rs 5-10 lakh in a year. Now after the MGNREGS some Panchayats are getting more than Rs 15 to 45 lakh and even more than that. “If not deliberately, government by its own system has made Panchayats like relief centers, by which elected Panchayat representatives have made up their mind as if their duty is only to select and distribute Indira Awas Yojana houses, old-age pensions, widow pensions, disable pensions, Antyodaya Rice etc for beneficiaries”, said Nirakar Beura, an analyst on Panchayati system. As elections for Panchayati system are becoming more and more troublesome and political parties leaving no stone unturned to grab power at the bottom of democratic system, the real development has taken a backseat for many in states like Odisha.
By Sudarshan Chhotoray From Bhubaneswar